A second major academic review of Voices of the New Arab Public just came out. This one is by Jon Anderson, in the Middle East Journal - which is one of the most important reviews for any Middle East studies scholar. It's an honor to have my book paired with one by Ambassador Bill Rugh, the dean of American public diplomacy practitioners in the Arab world. Full text of the review can be found here.
Anderson is very generous in his praise, concluding that "the study of Arab public opinion has matured to the standards of American political science.... Lynch has not only described voices of the new Arab public; he has provided the point of departure for all serious analysis of it in the future." Along with the praise, Anderson raises this absolutely fascinating critique:
there is a residue in Lynch's analysis, which he identifies with the absence of any institutional formation through which Arab public opinion can be expressed or through which the Arab Public Sphere can be conceived as more than a site of discourse and subjective reflexivity of differences of opinion. Why this should be a problem lies in part in modernist understandings of politics to include mobilization, thus rendering what Lynch observes as mere "identity" politics, which he struggles to depict as a precursor to more pluralistic politics. Here, Michel Foucault's concept of "governmentality" might be more useful than Jurgen Habermas' "communicative action" for retrieving what his model--which triangulates opinion, sites of expression, and reflexivity--can only treat as a residue. What this misses is the institutional apparatus and common culture that tied intelligentsia loosely to their putative publics and tightly to political elites... The crucial next step in thinking about this public sphere is how it can be detached, if it can be detached at all, from media, which Lynch has started by respecifying public opinion as what polling data measure.
This is the kind of thing you like to see in a review - a genuinely challenging critique drawing on an alternative theoretical framework which might open up productive new lines of inquiry. Anderson is right about the problems created by my desire to link public sphere arguments to political mobilization. I devote a substantial part of chapter two trying to trace out the different pathways by which the new public sphere might affect political behavior - including by "changing the strategic calculations of rational politicians, by shaping worldviews, and by transforming identities" (p.69). Were I writing the book today, I would probably add more explicitly here the ways in which the new Arab media empower contentious politics (which I discuss at greater length in the conclusion than in chapter two). Anderson hits on a key issue in any analysis of Arab public opinion here, and one which can and will stand much more thought and research.
At the same time, I'm not entirely convinced that his Foucauldian alternative would be better. While it likely would help capture some of the constraints shaping these Arab intellectuals and activists, a Foucauldian approach (or one drawing on Bourdieu, for that matter) might miss the real potential for disruptive change introduced by new media technologies and newly empowered voices. For all the shortcomings of the Habermasian communicative action and public sphere tradition, it at least holds out more promise for agency, for the ability of these determined social actors to change the terms of politics through their public action. They might well fail, but - as with my response to the Faksh review in Perspectives on Politics - I would prefer to keep these questions open. I've no doubt that Anderson would agree, and that this could be a potentially fruitful theoretical dialogue.
That's two major, positive, and stimulating reviews of my book in one day - not bad. Time to write another one, I suppose.